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New film tells the story of colorful black coral divers

By Staff | Jul 28, 2016

The film “Black Coral” tells the harrowing, amazing and occasionally amusing stories of the black coral divers of Maui. In their own words, the divers open up about friendships, rivalries and the sobering realities of deep diving — the beauty, the addiction and the danger of harvesting the state gemstone. Interviews include dive legends Jack Ackerman, Rick Grigg, Robin Lee and more. PHOTO COURTESY OF BLACK CORAL FILM.

WEST MAUI – In the sparkling waters of the Auau Channel, between Maui, Molokai and Lanai, forests of black coral drape the ocean floor, valleys and cliffs.

It’s a natural, psychedelic spectacle that few have dared to explore and come back, and the story has been captured in a 70-minute documentary recently released by The Brothers Winn, Todd, Jedd and Brett.

“Black Coral,” the film, chronicles a 54-year journey with a band of fearless divers as they harvested the state gemstone from 1958 to 2012 at depths of 100 to sometimes, but rarely, 300 feet

The documentary ends with this statement: “The black coral story began with Jack Ackerman in 1958 and ended with the death of Robin Lee in 2012. Their legacy can be found at 200 feet.”

In the heyday, Lahaina residents and fellow harbor denizens observed the rise and fall of the industry; and the names featured in the film will fuel nostalgic memories.

Black coral can be turned into beautiful jewelry. PHOTOS COURTESY OF BLACK CORAL FILM.

The deep divers featured in the movie are Jack Ackerman, Al Gadow, Rick Grigg, Henry Ah Sam, Stephen Allencastre, Harold Hall, Tony Harrington, Bob Hartman, John Lawson, Robin Lee, Mitchell Major, Ray Souza and Calvin Wada – a delicious mix of old-timers, some alive and now passed, offering their testimony about this lively and sometimes tragic interlude of Lahaina’s past.

The colors of the underwater, cosmic world are electric as the viewer joins the camera in an undulating flow of discovery, as the ocean explorers shared their awe and addiction to the experience.

“There is something about the sensation of hitting the water – the millions of bubbles hitting your face – and you turn down and can’t see the bottom,” one diver said.

In an interview with the Lahaina News, 92-year-old John Lawson described what he called his obsession: “I loved it; it was just addictive – nitrous oxide every day, decompressing, talking to the whales.”

“We’d find places that nobody had ever seen,” Lawson observed. “Probably still haven’t seen. There are still mystery places out there.”

“When you hit the water, the sound changes, and you’re weightless,” the West Side senior added. “You’re flying in this crystal clear water, and you can’t see the water. You get closer and closer (to the bottom) and see white sand, then coral, then cliffs, valleys and fish, and coral heads. Here you’re floating-flying in this new element, and I was high all the time.”

His partner was Mike King.

Bob Hartman, a 1963 Lahainaluna High School graduate, dove with King at times as a teenager.

On file at his retail establishment on Front Street, Whaler’s Locker, is a May 1964 article in The Maui News written by Don Johnson about the largest coral tree Hartman harvested.

The picture with King shows Hartman next to a tree he brought up from 220 feet; it was 18 feet wide, 110 pounds and 11 feet high.

The 72-year-old merchant still dives twice a week. He shares the experience with visitors on film at his establishment.

“I don’t take anything out of the ocean (anymore). I don’t carry a spear; I dive alone,” he advised.

He explained the allure of diving at depths of more than 100 feet since a young man as “getting to go somewhere where no one had ever been before every day.”

Patti B. Souza grew up in two harbors: Lahaina Harbor and Honokohau in Kona.

Her dad is Ray Souza. His comments in the film were classically pirate and peppery.

She has fond memories of her youth.

“I’m 44 now. Dad was diving well before I was born, 1972, and continued until he got bent. I think he dove a few times after, too, so that wouldn’t have been until around the mid-90s.”

“He moved to Kona in the ’70’s and fished and would come back to Lahaina to dive black coral it was always an adventure! So lucky,” she commented about her childhood.

She recommended that others watch the Winn Brothers’ production.

“They put everything they had into it, and I totally appreciate that! I hope others watch it, and it affects them in some way. These guys did a great job putting together a little piece of history, and I’m grateful,” she said.

Other elements of the black coral diving world are incorporated into the film as well, like the risks, addictions, the money, the bends, tiger sharks, the losses, the deaths, the personalities, camaraderie and the Molokai Express.

Commencing in 2011, it took five years to complete, from filming to the cutting room floor.

The credits were chicken skin, mentioning others who risked their lives for the rare crop: Bob Agee, Harold Bloomfield, Chuck Brugman, Lance Cherry, Bill Darby, Ed Hickey, Dancin Kellet, Mike King, Tim Leballester, Beau Leballester, Arthur Marriott, Bart O’Conner, Robin Player, Nate Rosa, Jimmy Tam Sing, Neil Tobin, Larry Windley and Ivan Red Young.

“All those ghosts that are still floating around West Maui,” Lawson said. “It is magical – Dancin, Eggs, Ron Herr, Turtle and his son, Ralph Baxter, and Terry Stafford.

“This place has spirits,” Lawson concluded.

To buy a copy or view the trailer, go to www.blackcoralmovie.com.